“I often describe myself as a recovering Catholic,” writes Michael Arceneaux in his book "I Can’t Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race and Other Reasons I’ve Put My Faith in Beyoncé." The moment I heard that Michael Arceneaux was writing a book, I was ecstatic. I had been following his freelance work for about a year at that point, and I’m always interested in the deeper stories of my favorite writers.
I went into the book thinking that it was going to be a lot like one of Arceneaux’s pieces for Gawker, “My Mother’s Jesus Doesn’t Love Me,” which discusses closure with his religious mother. It was that and so much more. I knew there were going to be parts of this book with which I heavily identified, especially as someone who is also black and gay. But I did not expect to laugh, cry, or reflect as much I did in the two days it took me to complete the book. There were times that I related to Michael’s experiences so closely that I had to pause and go do something else for my brain to process what I had just heard. This is one of them:
"It's often said that knowing who you are, or at the very least possessing a sneaking suspicion of such early in life, is a blessing. The people who share this sentiment need to write it on a piece of paper, ball it up, and then proceed to pour barbecue sauce all over it as they eat it. Early self-awareness is a blessing only if who you are comes with a support system and an education. If you don't have those, it's easy to find yourself feeling stuck and sullen. I learned a certain part of my identity very early, but it was met with a near-instant confirmation of how unwelcome that part of my identity was to those surrounding me."
When you are in the process of figuring out your identity, unless you know how to process those feelings, it’s a lot like standing in quicksand that feels slow and torturous. For Michael, it seems as if that becomes amplified by a deeply religious mother and a father who introduced him to the word meant to throw disgrace on your innate identity.
Arceneaux’s approach to telling his story is one I can appreciate. In an interview with ELLE Magazine, he recalled telling Melissa Harris Perry, “I don’t do sad gay.” Later Arceneaux added, “I want to talk about pleasure and fun and joy and sex.” When you are marginalized, your story is consumed in the same way those commercials about protecting animals are, complete with a random Sarah McLachlan song. Whether you are a gay black man or a gay black woman with a disability, the theme of having a tragic gay exploration story is tiring because it wraps us in tragedy and then that’s all we’re labeled as. The book isn’t all serious, though—there’s talk of dating and sex and the intersection of balancing that when you were raised deeply religious, or as Michael puts it, “learning to hoe without the fear of God.” The book has moments that make you double over in laughter or rapidly nod your head: drunkenly sitting on a fire-ant hill, inviting over a flea-ridden guy from Grindr, and an unfortunate incident involving someone marking you with their braces.
By the time I finished this book, I was thinking about my own story in relationship to my sexuality. This is only the second memoir I’ve read in my adult life, and it was the first time I felt like a book was meant for me. Michael is already working on the follow-up to this book and if it’s anything like the first I can count on connecting, laughing, crying, and rapidly nodding for quite some time.